Eric Earle – one of the Trinity students who gathered on the roof of the college on VE day in May 1945

An Appreciation

Eric Earle: made lasting contribution to educational institutions in London and Ghana

Eric Earle: made lasting contribution to educational institutions in London and Ghana

 

Eric Earle, who died on December 23rd, 2021, at his home in Guildford in Surrey at the age of 96, must be one of the last, if not the last, survivor of the Trinity students who gathered on the roof of the college on VE day in May 1945, when Union Jacks were waved to celebrate victory in a war in which many alumni had served.

To his distress and that of others in Trinity anxious not to be disloyal to the State, an Irish Tricolour was burnt by some students from Northern Ireland.

Below in College Green, members of Ailtirí na hAiséirghe, supported by UCD students, including Charlie Haughey, burned a Union Jack. A riot ensued that had to be broken up by the police.

It was a seminal moment in the history of Trinity as the authorities, previously keen to honour the British connection, realised that they must mend fences with the Irish government.

Taoiseach Eamon de Valera was receptive to their apology – he had, of course, once had been a student in the college, although he did not proceed to a degree. Within two years, Trinity received its first government grant. No memorial was ever erected in Trinity to the alumni who perished in the second World War.

Eric William Despard Hemphill Earle, to give Eric his full name, was then a 19-year-old student, having been born on November 25, 1925, in Enniscorthy, Co Wexford, the eldest of two sons of Bill Earle, an official of the Bank of Ireland, and his wife Evelyn Hemphill, known to friends as Tommy. Bill Earle was subsequently transferred to headquarters so that by the late 1930s the family was settled on the Strand Road in Merrion in Dublin near my own family home. Hence our lifelong friendship.

“Tommy” Earle was an enthusiastic supporter of Fr Randall Colquhoun, the priest in the nearby Anglican Church of St John the Evangelist, who was, in the 1930s, suspended temporarily by the Church of Ireland Court of General Synod for his “high church” liturgical practices. He was unrepentant, and on his reinstatement, Eric and his younger brother Learo, who were altar servers, were detailed to look out for ill-disposed visitors sent to report on what was going on in St John’s.

Both boys boarded at St Columba’s. Learo cut his teeth as an actor; he later joined the Gate Theatre but died young.

Eric was more bookish and went on to read history at Trinity where he was awarded a foundation scholarship in 1946.

Earle’s first post after graduation in 1947 was with the Church of England Education Board in London. In 1952 he married Auriol Lucas, a Devon girl and a graduate in literature of the University of Exeter. They were a stunning looking couple.

They moved to the Gold Coast where Eric had been posted by the Colonial Office. Dutiful towards the native population, as were many colonial civil servants, Eric strove to improve the education system, remaining on for several years after 1958 when Ghana, as the country was renamed, became independent.

Auriol ran a multiracial school for children. They remained involved with Ghana long after their return to England in 1972 and were among the founders of the organisation Ghana School Aid.

They settled in Guildford with their four children. Eric joined the administrative staff at the London Polytechnic, founded by the philanthropist Quintin Hogg, before completing his career as secretary of the Institute of Education, a college of London University.

Auriol busied herself in local affairs, especially promoting the arts, and was a Liberal Democrat member of the local council.

Eric’s attachment to Ireland never waned, visiting his widowed father and stepmother regularly and later acquiring an apartment near Dún Laoghaire for visits. Trinity reunions were a special attraction; at the 2016 dinner for former scholars he was the sole scholar of 1946 present; he was an officer of the active Trinity Dining Club in London, which drew on the remarkable loyalty to Trinity of its alumni.

Eric was a companionable, whimsical, easy-going man, handsome in appearance, loyal to a fault, who attracted a diverse circle of friends. He rejoiced that he numbered among his Irish cousinhood, through his English Catholic grandmother, a Capuchin priest and Gaelgeoirs as well as the patrician Hemphills.

Eric worked assiduously to perpetuate the memory of his great-grandfather William Despard Hemphill, a medical practitioner in Clonmel, who was a noted pioneer in photography in the 1840s. An exhibition of his work was staged in Clonmel itself. In 2014, the Office of Public Works published a volume of Hemphill’s photographs; Eric contributed an article. It was launched at a reception in Dublin Castle.

Eric’s wife, for whom he had cared for several years, died earlier in 2021. He is survived by two sons and two daughters, self-described as the four rebels, whose devotion to their parents was truly edifying.